Two responses have been noticeable following the reconstitution of the BJP’s team of office-bearers by party president Rajnath Singh. First, media commentators have demonstrated an extraordinary nostalgia and/or a remarkable sympathy for LK Advani, Yashwant Sinha, Jaswant Singh, Arjun Munda and Shivraj Chauhan. What makes this particularly moving is none of the nostalgists and sympathisers has or is ever likely to vote for the BJP.
Second, the perception has been sought to be created that the BJP is returning to Hindutva and hard-line identity politics. This has befuddled party insiders since such issues are scarcely on the agenda in the run up to the 2014 election. The country’s mood — dispiritedness caused by economic anxiety and a feeling that surefooted leadership is lacking in government — would suggest that a theme of this nature is the last thing on the electorate’s mind.
What is cited to establish the BJP’s alleged swerve to Hindutva? Here the story gets genuinely puzzling. The promotion of Varun Gandhi to the post of general secretary is given as an example. On the other hand, the dropping of Vinay Katiyar — long-time adherent of the Ayodhya movement and an opponent of Varun Gandhi’s ascension — is not interpreted as an attempt to move away from Hindutva. Can one have it both ways?
The politics of religious mobilisation is hardly central to the BJP’s decisions today. Even the idea that Varun Gandhi is some sort of mascot of Hindutva is contestable and limited to one admittedly disagreeable and highly objectionable speech he delivered in 2009. Before or after that speech, he has provided no evidence of any Hindutva leaning or commitment. Indeed to some of his critics, such as Katiyar, this is a negative. Yet, sections of the media continue to paint him as champion of a cause he neither professes nor is externally identified with.
What is the message emerging from the reconstitution then? Here again there are two broad indicators, which converge in a certain political geography. For a start, the BJP has finally brought about some sort of a generational change and taken forward a wrenching process it has been troubled with since 2004. The fact that several vice-presidents and general secretaries are now in their 30s and 40s means a new beginning has been made.
The case of Varun Gandhi exemplifies this. He is not everybody’s favourite in the BJP but the point is the party has few young faces in Uttar Pradesh. Kalraj Mishra and Kalyan Singh, Vinay Katiyar and Kesrinath Tripathi: these are members of a fading generation in the state. To address its traditional upper caste constituency, the party has gambled with Varun Gandhi. It may or may not work, but politics is about taking gambles.
The much bigger message from the reshuffle is the emergence of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s strongman and its most powerful leader after the Vajpayee-Advani era. Willingly in some cases and grudgingly in others, his party colleagues have accepted this reality. That Modi is the only chief minister in the parliamentary board suggests he is more than just a muscular regional leader. Despite the efforts of some inventive mediapersons and a clique centred on the BJP’s pensioner’s club, there is no real debate on this in the party. Stories of a rivalry and mutual antipathy between the chief ministers of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, for instance, suffer from a lack of empirical evidence.
What lies ahead for the BJP? The formal national designation gives Modi the cover to move beyond business conclaves and closed-door sessions and address mass political meetings. Whether he is or isn’t a pan-Indian force will be tested in Uttar Pradesh and possibly Bihar, two states that contribute 120 seats to the Lok Sabha. It is here that he has to concentrate.
Both states offer intriguing possibilities. Take Bihar. For the moment Nitish Kumar and the Janata Dal (United) are on top thanks to an intricate social coalition knitted together with the BJP. If this alliance breaks, the immediate beneficiary will be Lalu Prasad, who will solidify his Yadav and Muslim support. Modi will seek to galvanise the BJP’s upper caste and urban voters and use his own OBC status — the appeal of which is under-recognised by many political analysts — to get a slice of the OBC vote. Should this situation play itself out, Bihar could become a fight between Lalu and Modi, with Nitish relegated to the margins.
Uttar Pradesh is even more tantalisingly poised. Both the Congress (which won 21 seats of 80 in the 2009 Lok Sabha election) and the Samajwadi Party (which swept the 2012 assembly election) are on the defensive. One obvious gainer will be the BSP. The imponderable is the BJP. To what degree can the Modi card excite voters in the numerous small towns of the state, reunite the BJP’s Brahmin-Thakur-Lower OBC constituency and propel the party? In hard terms, the BJP has not won an election in Uttar Pradesh since 1998, when it took away 57 of the state’s then 85 Lok Sabha seats. In 1999, this dropped to 29 seats and the party has been declining ever since.
Can Modi reverse this trend and ensure a performance that is reminiscent of the BJP’s grip on Uttar Pradesh in the mid-1990s? That is the key question for not just the party but for national politics. It could decide the verdict of 2014.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentatorThe views expressed by the author are personal